Purpose: We studied the effects of altitude on four corneas that had undergone radial keratotomy and four normal corneas exposed to increasing elevation during a high-altitude excursion.
Methods: We measured visual acuity, cycloplegic refraction, keratometry, and intraocular pressure at sea level and after 24-hour exposure to 12,000 and 17,000 ft.
Results: We observed a significant increase in spherical equivalence (hyperopic shift) in radial keratotomy eyes exposed to altitude as compared to controls (P < .0001). The average change in spherical equivalent cycloplegic refraction from sea level to 12,000 ft was 1.03 +/- 0.16 diopters and from sea level to 17,000 ft was 1.94 +/- 0.26 diopters. We also observed a significant decrease in keratometry values at altitude as compared with control corneas (P < .0001). The average change in keratometry from sea level to 12,000 ft was 0.59 +/- 0.19 diopter and from sea level to 17,000 ft was 1.75 +/- 0.27 diopters.
Conclusions: Although the specific origin of these changes is open to question, we hypothesize that hypoxic corneal expansion in the area of the radial keratotomy incisions may lead to central corneal flattening and a hyperopic shift in refractive error. The cornea that has undergone radial keratotomy appears to adjust constantly to changing environmental oxygen concentration, producing a new refractive error over a period of 24 hours or more. Additional study is required to identify with certainty the specific origin of the hyperopic shift at high altitude.